VENEZUELANS went to the polls to elect a new Parliament and new provincial legislatures on September 26, braving heavy rain and landslides. The United Venezuela Socialist Party (PSUV), headed by President Hugo Chavez, notched a comfortable victory but fell short of a two-thirds majority by 10 seats in the 165-member National Assembly it and its Left allies together won 100 seats. (The PSUV won in 17 of the 20 provinces. The results from two provinces were to be announced later.) Unlike in 2005, the opposition parties, united under the Coalition of Democratic Unity (MUD), put up a good fight. Although its goal was not achieved, the MUD sent a warning of sorts to Chavez, who is preparing for the 2012 presidential election.
A two-thirds majority would have allowed the government more freedom to carry out radical reforms to enhance the socialist project envisaged by Chavez. A major worry from the government's point of view is the ability of the opposition bloc to attract votes from major urban population centres like Caracas.
Law and order issues dominated the campaign in Caracas, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America. The majority of the country's population lives in Caracas and its satellite towns. The global recession had an adverse impact on the Venezuelan economy. The price of oil, which accounts for 95 per cent of the country's exports, dipped substantially in the last couple of years. The inflation rate hovers around 30 per cent though the government has ensured the supply of food at subsidised rates for the needy.
Greg Wilpert, an expert on Venezuelan politics, told Al Jazeera that the opposition had anyway stood to gain. But there is also an element of frustration with Chavez's base because of the economic situation and the main campaign issue of crime and security, which the government has tried to address but failed to convince its supporters, Wilpert told the television channel. Chavez said the PSUV and the Left parties aligned to it got 1.5 million votes more than the combined opposition. The [revolutionary] flame is stronger today the path of building socialism has been endorsed and now we will focus on the task of deepening and strengthening our project, he said in a speech after the results were announced.
The MUD observed that an electoral outcome that reduced the Socialist Party's two-third's majority should be considered a victory for it. However, when it comes to a presidential contest, none can match the stature of Chavez, who continues to have an approval rating of over 60 per cent. This is the 16th time Venezuelans have exercised their ballots since Chavez came to power in 1998. In the past 12 years, the country has achieved tremendous progress in several areas. Extreme poverty has dropped from 29.8 per cent in 2003 to 7.2 per cent in 2009, unemployment has been halved, illiteracy has been eradicated, university enrolment has jumped 193 per cent, and a radical land reform programme is under way. Venezuelans who cannot afford to go to private hospitals can now avail themselves of free medical treatment in clinics run by Cuban doctors.
The opposition committed a political blunder by boycotting the last parliamentary elections and, in the process, handing Chavez complete control of Parliament. This time, prodded on by Washington and big business interests, the MUD presented a united front and launched a strong campaign against the government. The United States, through its National Endowment for Democracy funds and USAID, ploughed in campaign cash for the opposition. This year alone, the U.S. is said to have invested $40-50 million in the country's opposition groups, the bulk of it going to the MUD to fight the assembly elections. As usual, the majority of the privately owned newspapers and television channels ran a vociferous campaign in favour of the opposition.John Cherian